This story is based on actual events that take place in Emergency Rooms around the country.
The man was pale and clammy. He felt as if a weight was pressing on his chest and grimaced in pain – a look that makes everyone in the ER scramble without even being told. He was young, not even 30, but within minutes, an EKG was done and blood tests were sent. He began to feel better, but was still drenched in sweat and looked weak.
The EKG (heart electrical rhythm on a graph) looked good. In fact, it was totally normal. Then the blood tests came back: no heart damage.
What was the problem? He had just started his own business. Things hadn’t been going well: He hadn’t slept in days, was making no money, and lived off Red Bulls and coffee. Although he was only 30 and had never had any health problems, the burden of trying to get a new business off the ground had become too much. He was having pain that is induced by stress. In fact – this type of stress chest pain can be indistinguishable from other forms of chest pain, that include a heart blockage, acid reflux, or a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism).
There’s plenty of stress to go around these days. Doctors have for years know the correlation of stressful life events that can send people to the emergency room. But now studies have shown a clear link between stress and heart attacks as well. When we as humans are stressed – our body increases levels of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenalin, and catecholamine). These stress hormones play a direct negative effect on the heart and vascular system – leading to vasoconstriction (narrowing) of blood vessels and destabilization of plaque (cholesterol buildup that lines blood vessels).
A study called INTERHEART, published in the Lancet medical journal, collected information on thousands of heart attack patients in over 50 countries around the world. Researchers wanted to identify the most important risk factors that could predict a heart attack and this study was unique in that it was international scope. The usual risk factors were all present: high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure were the major factors linked to heart attacks or strokes.
But one of the most interesting findings was that patients who reported high stress levels also had a higher risk of heart attack, even when the other factors were taken into account. The importance of stress was consistent across-the-board, in people from around the World.
So stress isn’t just a homegrown phenomenon. Other studies have shown that workplace and marital stress have been linked to heart attacks. How can you control stress as a risk factor?
The first step is to know where your stress comes from. Is it family, financial, or work-related? Can you do anything practical to change the situation? If not, can you develop habits that will help you reduce the stress response? Although much of our stress cannot be eliminated, it can almost always be managed. See our Stress Reduction blog series for specific ideas.